Of Henry Brant, Phil Spector, and 110 in the Shade

What would the world’s understanding of Bach and Beethoven be if their music had come down to us only through canned amplified sound and had never in history been heard live and acoustic by human ears? If our knowledge of Mozart and our hearing of a Stradivarius were wholly based on a studio overdubbing by Phil Ramone or a “wall of sound” rendering by Phil Spector?

If that sounds too ridiculous for words, mark this 2007 reality: younger audiences today have only known and experienced theater music piped through live-in-performance loudspeakers. They have no cultural or even physical memory of non-electronically mediated music in the theater.

Consider the fine current Broadway revival (just closed) of the 1963 Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt-N. Richard Nash musical 110 in the Shade, the last notable musical to open on Broadway before the Kennedy assassination. It has the best sound designed theater orchestra I’ve heard on Broadway in years. Jonathan Tunick, who reputedly gets contractual control over the sound design, ingeniously reorchestrated the music for 15 players (the 1963 Hershy Kay orchestration had far more strings, and more brass as well). The Tunick orchestra is divided into two pits placed on either side of the auditorium in the upper boxes. In the house left box sit the conductor, keyboard player, five strings, and the drummer/percussionist; in the house right box, four woodwind players, three brass (almost always muted), and a harp. Despite this Henry Brantian spatial heterophony and loudspeakers splayed furlongs apart, the ear heard a perfectly blended orchestra with surprisingly full string sound (augmented by “string synth”? I don’t know; I couldn’t see the keyboard player from my seat.)

But the sound design of the singing and speaking? When the eye focused downstage right on “Sheriff File” singing, the ear tacked upward left toward the loudspeakers, with the result that one felt as if one were watching a bad foreign film dubbing. When the ensemble crescendoed in choral passages, one heard the electronic twang of amps more than the naked excitement of massed human voices. When Audra McDonald ascended to high pitches or high emotion, her diction got lost in the fuzz of a metallic treble reverb. Every spoken and sung nuance in the higher frequencies in this production was reduced to a monochromatic shrillness. Yet for all that, this was still one of the better sound designed productions I have heard, far more natural and easier on the eardrum than The Producers.

Sure, Henry Brant uses far-flung spatiality as an expressive factor in his music, but that doesn’t lend legitimacy to Broadway’s heterophonic ear/eye disconnects: Brant’s spatial positionings depend on the natural bloom of sound in real acoustic space. There’s no natural bloom, no house or stage floor resonance in loudspeakered theater music. No, it’s the twin Phils, Ramone and Spector, who have captured the public notion of how theater sound should sound. Is this a service to art? Or a sop to commerce and the equivalent of colorizing the black-and-white etchings of Francisco Goya while destroying the originals?

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